Ground-up growth: NJCU’s sports wagering center is continuing to make progress toward workforce of the future

After going all-in almost two years ago on the creation of a center dedicated to online sports wagering technology and fintech, New Jersey City University‘s leaders expect it won’t be long until their efforts start paying off.

NJCU’s Sports Wagering and Financial Technology Workforce Development and Innovation Center is one of the several such programs the New Jersey Economic Development Authority is helping stand up around the state, with another being Stockton University‘s Esports Innovation Center. These centers are meant to pair educational institutions with industry to fuel workforce development in particular sectors.

The NJEDA originally signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the school — providing the center with $200,000 in funding and staff resources — back in June 2021. Bernie McSherry, the founding dean of the NJCU School of Business, said that the planning and groundwork for the center stretched into 2022.

“We spent most of last year getting (the center’s) new director in place and getting some proverbial ducks in a row,” he said. “We’ve got a real chance this year to start doing some events and to begin pushing out some programming.”

David Naczycz.

David Naczycz, an entrepreneur, was named the center’s first executive director. His most recent startup was guided tour and hospitality business WeVenture.

“What interested me about this role was the idea of being there at the beginning of something and being able to grow it from the ground up,” Naczycz said. “Also, it was an innovative idea within the economic development and educational space. That’s the primary reason I ended up here.”

That reason for excitement also presents a challenge. The exact combination of fintech and sports wagering on a college campus is relatively untested.

But Naczycz, who took a Zoom call from London, where there was one of the world’s largest gambling trade shows, had just encountered proof the mix made sense: The largest share of exhibitors at the gambling event he attended were in the payments space.

However, with few examples to model their program after, the team running the local innovation center has its work cut out for them, Naczycz said.

“It’s still early days for us; we’re figuring things out,” he said. “We do know we’re going to be focused on a couple key issues, and one of those is responsible gambling. That’s a big topic in the online sports wagering industry world right now. There’s a lot of opportunity for innovation around it, both from a tech standpoint and a best practices standpoint.”

Another issue it’s identified in these sectors’ workforce pipeline is diversity, Naczycz added. Put bluntly: There’s not a lot of it. Both fintech and sports wagering have poor representation of women and minorities, Naczycz said.

The branching career paths that could lead into either field are many. There are sports wagering and fintech companies in close proximity geographically that are looking for professionals in product design, marketing, finance and an abundance of roles.

Naczycz is bullish about the opportunities that might be available to students in the future, especially when the emerging area of wagering on e-sports is factored in as well.

“We’ll be working with the Esports Innovation Center at Stockton University because of the overlap in terms of stakeholders and companies in those industries, as well as the opportunities and skill-sets students might have,” he said.

Stockton University’s center is about a year ahead of NJCU’s program, which has yet to officially launch. Internships are still being established for students, and industry practitioners are being recruited to interact with students interested in their field.

McSherry said the state’s economic development personnel entrusted them to foster economic mobility for students and families — and that’s what they’re excited to do.

“People are excited about it, too,” McSherry said. “We’re already talking about perhaps having another innovation center focused on another industry at some point. I expect this will be viewed as a nice example of a public-private partnership coming together in a way that really serves the community. I’m confident it’ll be a success.”

The advertising debate

Devon Corneal of Seton Hall University School of Law said it’s no coincidence that one of the biggest topics of debate right now in her gaming, hospitality, entertainment and sports law area of expertise is the one visible to all — literally.

“You can’t pass a subway stop or a train station in the Garden State without seeing a billboard with sports stars or famous actors promoting DraftKings, BetMGM, Caesars or a slew of other sportsbooks,” she said. “They’re on stadiums, on TV broadcasts during games and now shows dedicated specifically to betting on sports. And, there’s a ton of online advertising, too.”

There’s a debate about the propriety of ubiquitous sports wagering advertisements that’s only becoming more contentious as the e-sports wagering market enters the fray, according to Corneal, an assistant dean at Seton Hall.

In certain overseas markets, sports wagering advertisements featuring celebrities and athletes have been banned. The first question for those considering the legal and regulatory outlook locally: What’s the impact?

In other words, Corneal explained, who are the advertisements reaching? People not legally allowed to bet? People who have struggled with gambling addictions?

“I don’t think we have great answers for that, although the anecdotal evidence is that people engaged in providing services for problem gamblers have seen a significant uptick in calls to help lines,” she said.

Concern about marketing that might reach those not legally allowed to bet is particularly profound in the new category of e-sports wagering.

“Not only does that audience tend to skew much younger, but it’s going to be a tricky thing with the players skewing younger, too,” Corneal said. “I was talking with someone involved with e-sports who talked about how, by the time you’re 26, you’re out. The fast-twitch muscle fibers aren’t what they once were after that. But, there’s rules and regulations that prohibit betting on sports teams that are made up of people under the age of 18. So, there’s going to have to be close monitoring of that.”

Sportsbook operators in New Jersey expect to be held to high standards as sports wagering — and now e-sports wagering — continues to expand, Corneal said. But they also express that local regulators are particularly communicative.

“New Jersey has always been a leader in staying on top of these kinds of questions,” she said. “They’re open and transparent with operators. That’s one thing I’ve heard, that you can always easily have a conversation with someone at the (New Jersey Division of Gaming Enforcement). That’s not true in all states.”